The war in Ukraine has entered a new, more dangerous phase after Vladimir Putin held a referendum in Russian-held territory and declared the annexation of 15 percent of Ukraine. The annexed region that includes Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia is now the target of a Ukrainian military offensive that has recaptured significant swaths of land in eastern and southern areas once controlled by Moscow.
At a rally in Red Square on Sept. 30, Putin said Russia was fighting an existential battle with Western elites he deemed “the enemy,” while denouncing what he called the American-led “neocolonial system.” In response, the U.S. and its western European allies condemned Russia’s “referendums” as fraudulent and the annexations as illegal. Reacting to the annexation of his country, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Ukraine would be applying for “accelerated” membership into NATO, the very outcome that Putin was trying to prevent.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with George Beebe, director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, former director of the CIA’s Russia desk and adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. Here, he examines the new danger of miscalculation or accident after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine territory, and a new poll that finds a majority of Americans want the U.S. to pursue negotiations to end the conflict.
GEORGE BEEBE: Well, I think this is an extremely dangerous situation and we’re in an escalatory spiral with the Russians that has been going on for years, actually. But it has gotten quite serious just this past year with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And at each stage in this escalation, each side thinks that if it ups the ante that the other side will sober up and back down, when in fact each side has escalated rather than backed off.
And that’s what’s happening right now. The Russians have responded to the recent Ukrainian counter-offensive success by doubling down, by partially mobilizing the country for a war, calling up some 300,000 reservists in Russia to go to the front and fight, by holding these referendums in Ukraine and then immediately annexing this territory and announcing that Russia is willing to use every means at its disposal, which is a transparent reference to the use of nuclear weapons in order to defend Russia against attack.
So this is most definitely an escalation. One of the difficulties we’re facing right now is that the Russians are feeling increasingly desperate and cornered. And when countries feel like their backs are against the wall and they have a choice between fighting or ceasing to exist as a country — when they feel their survival is at stake, they can do some breathtakingly reckless things.
And that’s the situation that Russia feels that it is in right now. And we should not underestimate the lengths that Russia might go to under these circumstances. So it’s a very, very dangerous situation that we’re in.
SCOTT HARRIS: Well, George, before we run out of time, I did want to touch on really one very important polling project that the Quincy Institute was involved in recently. The Quincy Institute commissioned a recent poll that found that 57 percent of American likely voters support the U.S., pursuing negotiations as a possible way to end the war in Ukraine, even if it means making concessions to Russia. Tell us a little bit about this poll and its significance.
GEORGE BEEBE: Well, what I think this poll shows is that the American people have an awful lot of common sense and that’s a cause for hope in this very difficult situation. I don’t think this poll shows that anyone believes that we ought to be depriving Ukraine of the ability to defend itself. I think there’s very strong support among Americans for continuing to do that.
But I think what the poll shows is that Americans believe that that support ought to be coupled with a diplomatic track, with talks that are aimed at finding a way to end this war. And that’s a very sensible position, I think, to have. And I hope that our political leadership in Washington starts to recognize the wisdom that the American people have on all of this.
Because, if we’re going to find a way out of this, we have to look at both carrot and stick. We have to couple what has been a largely military strategy with diplomatic engagement to try to find a way out of the situation. That’s how Kennedy found his way out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He both threatened to attack Soviet forces in Cuba, but he also had a diplomatic track of talks that ultimately resulted in a compromise. And we were able to avoid Armageddon then. And I think that’s the model we need today.
For more information, visit the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft at quincyinst.org.
For the best listening experience and to never miss an episode, subscribe to Between The Lines on your favorite podcast app or platform: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Tunein + Alexa, Castbox, Overcast, Podfriend, iHeartRadio, Castro, Pocket Casts, RSS Feed.